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The Woman in White, Page 3

Wilkie Collins


  The heat had been painfully oppressive all day, and it was now a closeand sultry night.

  My mother and sister had spoken so many last words, and had begged meto wait another five minutes so many times, that it was nearly midnightwhen the servant locked the garden-gate behind me. I walked forward afew paces on the shortest way back to London, then stopped andhesitated.

  The moon was full and broad in the dark blue starless sky, and thebroken ground of the heath looked wild enough in the mysterious lightto be hundreds of miles away from the great city that lay beneath it.The idea of descending any sooner than I could help into the heat andgloom of London repelled me. The prospect of going to bed in myairless chambers, and the prospect of gradual suffocation, seemed, inmy present restless frame of mind and body, to be one and the samething. I determined to stroll home in the purer air by the mostroundabout way I could take; to follow the white winding paths acrossthe lonely heath; and to approach London through its most open suburbby striking into the Finchley Road, and so getting back, in the cool ofthe new morning, by the western side of the Regent's Park.

  I wound my way down slowly over the heath, enjoying the divinestillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of light andshade as they followed each other over the broken ground on every sideof me. So long as I was proceeding through this first and prettiestpart of my night walk my mind remained passively open to theimpressions produced by the view; and I thought but little on anysubject--indeed, so far as my own sensations were concerned, I canhardly say that I thought at all.

  But when I had left the heath and had turned into the by-road, wherethere was less to see, the ideas naturally engendered by theapproaching change in my habits and occupations gradually drew more andmore of my attention exclusively to themselves. By the time I hadarrived at the end of the road I had become completely absorbed in myown fanciful visions of Limmeridge House, of Mr. Fairlie, and of thetwo ladies whose practice in the art of water-colour painting I was sosoon to superintend.

  I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roadsmet--the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road toFinchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I hadmechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling alongthe lonely high-road--idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberlandyoung ladies would look like--when, in one moment, every drop of bloodin my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightlyand suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

  I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle ofmy stick.

  There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road--there, as if it hadthat moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven--stoodthe figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in whitegarments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing tothe dark cloud over London, as I faced her.

  I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which thisextraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and inthat lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman spokefirst.

  "Is that the road to London?" she said.

  I looked attentively at her, as she put that singular question to me.It was then nearly one o'clock. All I could discern distinctly by themoonlight was a colourless, youthful face, meagre and sharp to look atabout the cheeks and chin; large, grave, wistfully attentive eyes;nervous, uncertain lips; and light hair of a pale, brownish-yellow hue.There was nothing wild, nothing immodest in her manner: it was quietand self-controlled, a little melancholy and a little touched bysuspicion; not exactly the manner of a lady, and, at the same time, notthe manner of a woman in the humblest rank of life. The voice, littleas I had yet heard of it, had something curiously still and mechanicalin its tones, and the utterance was remarkably rapid. She held a smallbag in her hand: and her dress--bonnet, shawl, and gown all ofwhite--was, so far as I could guess, certainly not composed of verydelicate or very expensive materials. Her figure was slight, andrather above the average height--her gait and actions free from theslightest approach to extravagance. This was all that I could observeof her in the dim light and under the perplexingly strangecircumstances of our meeting. What sort of a woman she was, and howshe came to be out alone in the high-road, an hour after midnight, Ialtogether failed to guess. The one thing of which I felt certain was,that the grossest of mankind could not have misconstrued her motive inspeaking, even at that suspiciously late hour and in that suspiciouslylonely place.

  "Did you hear me?" she said, still quietly and rapidly, and without theleast fretfulness or impatience. "I asked if that was the way toLondon."

  "Yes," I replied, "that is the way: it leads to St. John's Wood and theRegent's Park. You must excuse my not answering you before. I wasrather startled by your sudden appearance in the road; and I am, evennow, quite unable to account for it."

  "You don't suspect me of doing anything wrong, do you? I have donenothing wrong. I have met with an accident--I am very unfortunate inbeing here alone so late. Why do you suspect me of doing wrong?"

  She spoke with unnecessary earnestness and agitation, and shrank backfrom me several paces. I did my best to reassure her.

  "Pray don't suppose that I have any idea of suspecting you," I said,"or any other wish than to be of assistance to you, if I can. I onlywondered at your appearance in the road, because it seemed to me to beempty the instant before I saw you."

  She turned, and pointed back to a place at the junction of the road toLondon and the road to Hampstead, where there was a gap in the hedge.

  "I heard you coming," she said, "and hid there to see what sort of manyou were, before I risked speaking. I doubted and feared about it tillyou passed; and then I was obliged to steal after you, and touch you."

  Steal after me and touch me? Why not call to me? Strange, to say theleast of it.

  "May I trust you?" she asked. "You don't think the worse of me becauseI have met with an accident?" She stopped in confusion; shifted her bagfrom one hand to the other; and sighed bitterly.

  The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The naturalimpulse to assist her and to spare her got the better of the judgment,the caution, the worldly tact, which an older, wiser, and colder manmight have summoned to help him in this strange emergency.

  "You may trust me for any harmless purpose," I said. "If it troublesyou to explain your strange situation to me, don't think of returningto the subject again. I have no right to ask you for any explanations.Tell me how I can help you; and if I can, I will."

  "You are very kind, and I am very, very thankful to have met you." Thefirst touch of womanly tenderness that I had heard from her trembled inher voice as she said the words; but no tears glistened in those large,wistfully attentive eyes of hers, which were still fixed on me. "Ihave only been in London once before," she went on, more and morerapidly, "and I know nothing about that side of it, yonder. Can I geta fly, or a carriage of any kind? Is it too late? I don't know. If youcould show me where to get a fly--and if you will only promise not tointerfere with me, and to let me leave you, when and how I please--Ihave a friend in London who will be glad to receive me--I want nothingelse--will you promise?"

  She looked anxiously up and down the road; shifted her bag again fromone hand to the other; repeated the words, "Will you promise?" andlooked hard in my face, with a pleading fear and confusion that ittroubled me to see.

  What could I do? Here was a stranger utterly and helplessly at mymercy--and that stranger a forlorn woman. No house was near; no onewas passing whom I could consult; and no earthly right existed on mypart to give me a power of control over her, even if I had known how toexercise it. I trace these lines, self-distrustfully, with the shadowsof after-events darkening the very paper I write on; and still I say,what could I do?

  What I did do, was to try and gain time by questioning her. "Are yousure that your friend in London will receive you at such a late hour asthis?" I said.

  "Quite sure. Only say you will let me leave you when and how Iplease--only say you won't interfere with me. Will you promise?"

  As she repeated the words for the third time, she came close to me andlaid her hand, with a sudden gentle stealthiness, on my bosom--a thinhand; a cold hand (when I removed it with mine) even on that sultrynight. Remember that I was young; remember that the hand which touchedme was a woman's.

  "Will you promise?"


  One word! The little familiar word that is on everybody's lips, everyhour in the day. Oh me! and I tremble, now, when I write it.

  We set our faces towards London, and walked on together in the firststill hour of the new day--I, and this woman, whose name, whosecharacter, whose story, whose objects in life, whose very presence bymy side, at that moment, were fathomless mysteries to me. It was likea dream. Was I Walter Hartright? Was this the well-known, uneventfulroad, where holiday people strolled on Sundays? Had I really left,little more than an hour since, the quiet, decent, conventionallydomestic atmosphere of my mother's cottage? I was too bewildered--tooconscious also of a vague sense of something like self-reproach--tospeak to my strange companion for some minutes. It was her voice againthat first broke the silence between us.

  "I want to ask you something," she said suddenly. "Do you know manypeople in London?"

  "Yes, a great many."

  "Many men of rank and title?" There was an unmistakable tone ofsuspicion in the strange question. I hesitated about answering it.

  "Some," I said, after a moment's silence.

  "Many"--she came to a full stop, and looked me searchingly in theface--"many men of the rank of Baronet?"

  Too much astonished to reply, I questioned her in my turn.

  "Why do you ask?"

  "Because I hope, for my own sake, there is one Baronet that you don'tknow."

  "Will you tell me his name?"

  "I can't--I daren't--I forget myself when I mention it." She spokeloudly and almost fiercely, raised her clenched hand in the air, andshook it passionately; then, on a sudden, controlled herself again, andadded, in tones lowered to a whisper "Tell me which of them YOU know."

  I could hardly refuse to humour her in such a trifle, and I mentionedthree names. Two, the names of fathers of families whose daughters Itaught; one, the name of a bachelor who had once taken me a cruise inhis yacht, to make sketches for him.

  "Ah! you DON'T know him," she said, with a sigh of relief. "Are you aman of rank and title yourself?"

  "Far from it. I am only a drawing-master."

  As the reply passed my lips--a little bitterly, perhaps--she took myarm with the abruptness which characterised all her actions.

  "Not a man of rank and title," she repeated to herself. "Thank God! Imay trust HIM."

  I had hitherto contrived to master my curiosity out of considerationfor my companion; but it got the better of me now.

  "I am afraid you have serious reason to complain of some man of rankand title?" I said. "I am afraid the baronet, whose name you areunwilling to mention to me, has done you some grievous wrong? Is he thecause of your being out here at this strange time of night?"

  "Don't ask me: don't make me talk of it," she answered. "I'm not fitnow. I have been cruelly used and cruelly wronged. You will be kinderthan ever, if you will walk on fast, and not speak to me. I sadly wantto quiet myself, if I can."

  We moved forward again at a quick pace; and for half an hour, at least,not a word passed on either side. From time to time, being forbiddento make any more inquiries, I stole a look at her face. It was alwaysthe same; the lips close shut, the brow frowning, the eyes lookingstraight forward, eagerly and yet absently. We had reached the firsthouses, and were close on the new Wesleyan college, before her setfeatures relaxed and she spoke once more.

  "Do you live in London?" she said.

  "Yes." As I answered, it struck me that she might have formed someintention of appealing to me for assistance or advice, and that I oughtto spare her a possible disappointment by warning her of my approachingabsence from home. So I added, "But to-morrow I shall be away fromLondon for some time. I am going into the country."

  "Where?" she asked. "North or south?"

  "North--to Cumberland."

  "Cumberland!" she repeated the word tenderly. "Ah! wish I was goingthere too. I was once happy in Cumberland."

  I tried again to lift the veil that hung between this woman and me.

  "Perhaps you were born," I said, "in the beautiful Lake country."

  "No," she answered. "I was born in Hampshire; but I once went toschool for a little while in Cumberland. Lakes? I don't remember anylakes. It's Limmeridge village, and Limmeridge House, I should like tosee again."

  It was my turn now to stop suddenly. In the excited state of mycuriosity, at that moment, the chance reference to Mr. Fairlie's placeof residence, on the lips of my strange companion, staggered me withastonishment.

  "Did you hear anybody calling after us?" she asked, looking up and downthe road affrightedly, the instant I stopped.

  "No, no. I was only struck by the name of Limmeridge House. I heardit mentioned by some Cumberland people a few days since."

  "Ah! not my people. Mrs. Fairlie is dead; and her husband is dead; andtheir little girl may be married and gone away by this time. I can'tsay who lives at Limmeridge now. If any more are left there of thatname, I only know I love them for Mrs. Fairlie's sake."

  She seemed about to say more; but while she was speaking, we camewithin view of the turnpike, at the top of the Avenue Road. Her handtightened round my arm, and she looked anxiously at the gate before us.

  "Is the turnpike man looking out?" she asked.

  He was not looking out; no one else was near the place when we passedthrough the gate. The sight of the gas-lamps and houses seemed toagitate her, and to make her impatient.

  "This is London," she said. "Do you see any carriage I can get? I amtired and frightened. I want to shut myself in and be driven away."

  I explained to her that we must walk a little further to get to acab-stand, unless we were fortunate enough to meet with an emptyvehicle; and then tried to resume the subject of Cumberland. It wasuseless. That idea of shutting herself in, and being driven away, hadnow got full possession of her mind. She could think and talk ofnothing else.

  We had hardly proceeded a third of the way down the Avenue Road when Isaw a cab draw up at a house a few doors below us, on the opposite sideof the way. A gentleman got out and let himself in at the garden door.I hailed the cab, as the driver mounted the box again. When we crossedthe road, my companion's impatience increased to such an extent thatshe almost forced me to run.

  "It's so late," she said. "I am only in a hurry because it's so late."

  "I can't take you, sir, if you're not going towards Tottenham CourtRoad," said the driver civilly, when I opened the cab door. "My horseis dead beat, and I can't get him no further than the stable."

  "Yes, yes. That will do for me. I'm going that way--I'm going thatway." She spoke with breathless eagerness, and pressed by me into thecab.

  I had assured myself that the man was sober as well as civil before Ilet her enter the vehicle. And now, when she was seated inside, Ientreated her to let me see her set down safely at her destination.

  "No, no, no," she said vehemently. "I'm quite safe, and quite happynow. If you are a gentleman, remember your promise. Let him drive ontill I stop him. Thank you--oh! thank you, thank you!"

  My hand was on the cab door. She caught it in hers, kissed it, andpushed it away. The cab drove off at the same moment--I started intothe road, with some vague idea of stopping it again, I hardly knewwhy--hesitated from dread of frightening and distressing her--called,at last, but not loudly enough to attract the driver's attention. Thesound of the wheels grew fainter in the distance--the cab melted intothe black shadows on the road--the woman in white was gone.

  Ten minutes or more had passed. I was still
on the same side of theway; now mechanically walking forward a few paces; now stopping againabsently. At one moment I found myself doubting the reality of my ownadventure; at another I was perplexed and distressed by an uneasy senseof having done wrong, which yet left me confusedly ignorant of how Icould have done right. I hardly knew where I was going, or what Imeant to do next; I was conscious of nothing but the confusion of myown thoughts, when I was abruptly recalled to myself--awakened, I mightalmost say--by the sound of rapidly approaching wheels close behind me.

  I was on the dark side of the road, in the thick shadow of some gardentrees, when I stopped to look round. On the opposite and lighter sideof the way, a short distance below me, a policeman was strolling alongin the direction of the Regent's Park.

  The carriage passed me--an open chaise driven by two men.

  "Stop!" cried one. "There's a policeman. Let's ask him."

  The horse was instantly pulled up, a few yards beyond the dark placewhere I stood.

  "Policeman!" cried the first speaker. "Have you seen a woman pass thisway?"

  "What sort of woman, sir?"

  "A woman in a lavender-coloured gown----"

  "No, no," interposed the second man. "The clothes we gave her werefound on her bed. She must have gone away in the clothes she wore whenshe came to us. In white, policeman. A woman in white."

  "I haven't seen her, sir."

  "If you or any of your men meet with the woman, stop her, and send herin careful keeping to that address. I'll pay all expenses, and a fairreward into the bargain."

  The policeman looked at the card that was handed down to him.

  "Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?"

  "Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white.Drive on."